Migrant workers from Myanmar face Thai defamation charges

Fourteen migrant workers from Myanmar appeared Wednesday in a Thai court on criminal defamation charges brought by their employer, which they accused of grueling, illegal working conditions.

The New York-based group Human Rights Watch urged that the defamation case be dropped, saying it was brought in retaliation for the workers reporting labor abuse, including 20-hour work days and underpayment. The defamation charge carries a possible one-year prison term.

Thailand's Department of Labor Protection and Welfare has already ordered the employer, Thammakaset Farm, to pay them a total of 1.7 million baht ($50,000) in compensation and damages, rejecting the workers' claim of about $1.3 million. A court also rejected a lawsuit by the workers alleging forced labor.

Thammakaset Farm, a supplier of poultry to Thai agribusiness giant Betagro, says the workers' allegations defamed it.

Two of the fourteen workers were also charged with theft for taking their timecards to show labor protection officials that they were working illegally long hours. The theft charges carry a possible punishment of up to seven years in prison.

"The Thai government should not allow an employer to criminalize these migrant workers for reporting what they describe as horrendous and unlawful labor conditions," Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch, said in a statement. "The charges against these 14 workers should be dropped.

Human Rights Watch said it believes criminal defamation laws "should be abolished because they are an inherently disproportionate response to the need to protect reputations," and are easily abused to intimidate and punish whistleblowers.

"The government is helping to chill the atmosphere for investigations of company supply chains, and is undermining corporate accountability, if it does not protect these 14 migrant workers from retaliation," Adams said.

Nakhon Chompuchat, a lawyer for the workers, said Wednesday's court session was adjourned because some documents were unavailable, and the next hearing is scheduled for July 13.